The basketball games between the Westerville Titans and Upper Arlington Golden Bears were always intense and competitive.
It didn’t matter that they were contested on Saturday mornings in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio, and the players were in elementary school.
Ten years or so later and 400 miles to the south, the rivalry still simmers.
“We used to always beat (Upper Arlington),” said Jack Gibbs, a former Titan who is now Davidson’s sophomore point guard.
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“What?” countered the Golden Bears’ Brian Sullivan, now one of Gibbs’ backcourt mates with the Wildcats. “(Westerville) wore these dinky little yellow T-shirts. We beat up on them.”
Grade-school rivals no more, Gibbs and Sullivan are together at Davidson, which plays a second-round NCAA tournament game Friday in Seattle against Iowa.
They’re not the only Ohio players on the Wildcats’ roster. In fact, the state produced Davidson’s entire starting lineup. In addition to Gibbs and Sullivan, junior guard Jordan Barham is from Cleveland and freshman forward Peyton Aldridge is from Leavittsburg. Senior guard Tyler Kalinoski was born in Cincinnati, although his family later moved to Overland Park, Kan.
The number of Ohio players at Davidson is not a coincidence.
“Dominoes,” explained Wildcats coach Bob McKillop. “And the first domino was Kelsey Linville McKillop.”
Kelsey is McKillop’s daughter-in-law and the wife of Davidson assistant coach Matt McKillop, Bob’s son. She graduated from Upper Arlington High, which is where Sullivan played before initially going to Miami (Ohio) to play college basketball.
The McKillops’ familiarity with Upper Arlington – thanks to Matt’s relationship with Kelsey, a former standout tennis player at Davidson – helped when Sullivan decided to leave Miami and transfer to Davidson.
It also didn’t hurt that Matt McKillop and Kelsey held their engagement in Upper Arlington. Bob McKillop was able to combine that with a recruiting visit with Gibbs, who lived in Westerville, about a 30-minute drive from Upper Arlington.
The Wildcats continued to recruit Gibbs hard. Matt McKillop stayed at his in-laws when he came to watch Gibbs play at Westerville North High.
Barham and Aldridge are from different parts of Ohio, but Davidson’s recruiting inroads in the state helped land them both. The Wildcats didn’t discover Barham until the final day of the recruiting period during the summer before his senior season at Cleveland’s University School.
Matt McKillop said Davidson might have had an edge with Barham, who had posters of former Wildcats star Stephen Curry on his bedroom wall.
“Davidson had always been his dream school and we almost missed him,” said Matt McKillop. “It’s crazy how recruiting works sometimes: You can be on a player for four or five years and he decides to go somewhere else. Or you can find a guy like Jordan on the last day of the recruiting period.”
Aldridge first heard about Davidson when he saw Gibbs at a summer-league tournament. Gibbs had just made his official visit to Davidson and recommended it to Aldridge.
Davidson has long had success with players from Ohio. Dick Snyder, a star in the 1960s, is from North Canton. Other former players from the Buckeye State include Thomas Sander (Cincinnati), Greg Dunn and Jay Powell (Youngstown) and Ken Niebuhr (Wadsworth).
“Ohio is a big football state, so I sense that the basketball community is really tight,” said Matt McKillop. “We’ve been able to build good relationships in Ohio. The Davidson brand is strong there.”